What, exactly, is visibility? What forms does it take? What are the effects, positive and negative? Visibility is necessary for advancement, but a mixed bag for a community in transition.
I’ve always had an odd relationship with my own trans status. For pretty much all my life, I have wanted to be female, felt I was female, felt I should have BEEN female in the first place. In all likelihood, my brain is somewhat feminized compared to other people born presumed male. It was an absolute obsession for me. Yes, the dysphoria was strong in this one. Never once, ever, did I want to be a transsexual.
Now, here I am, several years on in hormone therapy, post-transition, post-op. None of these things necessarily makes me more trans or more legitimate than I was before, or than others who are in different stages of transition, or others who choose various levels of transition or existence. For me, however, every step forward on this long and tortuous ‘hero’s journey’ has eased up the dysphoria. Every step has brought me a peace of mind which had eluded me my entire life.
And every step has pushed me further to the fringes of society as I faced new and exciting levels of bigotry and hate. It has been worth it, despite the pain and rejection, but the pain and rejection are quite real and not small.
To many people, I will never ‘really’ be a woman. At least not when I am out to them.
That’s where visibility comes in. I have experienced it at many levels. Throughout the ongoing ‘coming out’ process, throughout my public transition while working in elementary school, throughout my decision to live openly and proudly.
For many people, I have been the first openly transsexual they have met. As such, I have answered my share of questions. I have spoken to high school and college audiences, giving my ‘Trans 101’ presentation and answering questions. I don’t know how much information I actually passed along – people are reluctant to cede one inch of what ‘everyone knows,’ even in the face of the lived experience of another. You never know with this type of work, but my suspicion is that I have done more good simply by being present than through any information I presented. Visibility humanizes us. Bigotry dehumanizes us. Being out is dangerous, and not for everyone, but in the long term, may be the best weapon we have. When you get to know a transgender person, it becomes a lot harder to stereotype us. No, we aren’t like Ru Paul. No, we aren’t criminal freaks just trying to watch women pee (I mean, seriously?).
The single most dangerous fact about trans* people is this : we’re pretty much like everyone else.
I have what is know in the trans community as ‘passing privilege.’ This means, when I choose to live as such, no-one will ever know I am anything other than female. Okay, I occasionally have to dodge some questions about my past (“What about YOUR childbirth stories, CAM?” “Uh…”). And honestly, when I get a cold my voice gets quite a bit huskier than I’d like, despite a year of voice training. This is known as living ‘stealth.’
Living stealth is a mixed bag, as well. I got better treatment and had a better sense of safety when everyone thought I was male than when I am accepted as the woman I am. And I get MUCH better treatment as a woman, than as an openly transwoman. Living a similar life to other cis (not trans) women was always the goal. Living as a transsexual never was. Yay! Success!
Well….almost. Careful what you wish for, you just might get it. Living stealth also means trading one closet for another. Living stealth means denying my struggle to become who I am. Living stealth means covering up or doing verbal jiu-jitsu to de-gender my past. I don’t have much stomach for outright lying, so I would (and still often do) phrase things consciously to avoid gender markers. “When I was in scouts…” “When I was a child…” “Yes, I am her parent…” Living stealth means always living with one eye on the sword of Damocles hanging over my head. Living stealth means waiting for that moment when you are found out, waiting for the looks of disgust from people who were once friendly to you, waiting for the accusations of dishonesty.
It’s not that your trans. It’s that you pretended not to be trans.
I had already fallen apart when HB2 passed. I had been struggling with the prejudice already. When the infamous ‘bathroom bill’ came to North Carolina, my reaction was, “The whole world hates me for who I am.” Despite the following boycotts, etc, I am still not 100% convinced that this is not largely the case. I appreciate the moral indignation, the political action, the boycotts. All this matters. I’m still not impressed with people in their day-to-day relations with trans people, however. I’m not impressed with the amount of disrespect and all the other wonderful levels of stupid that come along with prejudice. I still struggle with the fact that when I am out, I am a transsexual first and foremost to so many people, even allies, and little else. Never mind my political activism, my gardening and wildcrafting skills, my many other interests, experience, and knowledge. When you are out as trans, you are TRANS.
Oddly enough, last November did not throw me into despair. Instead, I got angry and I got active. At this point, I decided to largely jettison my passing privilege and live as openly trans. I embraced visibility and I embraced activism. I don’t necessarily disclose to everyone I meet, every time I buy a cup of coffee, but I am living out and proud, and ready to give a poke in the eye to anyone who has an issue with who I am.
It’s not an attitude I like to have, going out into the world, but a girl needs her armor these days, she needs her inner warrior, and attitude + makeup goes further than just makeup.
It’s legitimately dangerous living out. It’s legitimately dangerous living closeted. I know this every time I leave my house. I expect every trans person out there knows that feeling. I have no judgement, NONE AT ALL, for those who choose to remain stealth, or choose not to transition at this time, or who are de-transitioning out of fear of safety. Please stay safe.
But for those of us who can, visibility matters.
I live in a state with ‘protections.’ Connecticut was early on board with legal protections for trans people. I’m proud of this fact, but legal protections are a long way from acceptance, from equality. Protections do not end bigotry, they merely cause the more open and virulent forms of it to go underground. Protections do not prevent people from judging you by a very different ruler than people use for everyone else.
Even in a liberal state with ‘protections,’ things are still really very bad out there for trans people (and other marked minorities, of course).
Visibility is the only thing I know of that can ameliorate this prejudice. Every time we present ourselves to the world, we become a little more human. It’s much harder to stereotype someone you actually know in person. It’s much harder to dehumanize someone you have met, talked with, laughed with.
So I have been putting myself out there, openly and proudly. I have been helping organize with the Women’s March on Washington, at the state level. I have been showing up and volunteering with all the rising activism that has been springing up. I have personally advocated for trans rights and inclusion in all activities. Hopefully, I have been showing myself to be a valuable contributor in numerous causes. Some glbt, some not. I am, after all, a full and complete human like any other, with a wide variety of interests and passions, just like everyone else.
It is my contention that this visibility matters. When you are trans*, simply showing up and living with pride is a radical act.
The great thing about volunteer work, is that people tend to be happy enough to have someone to share the work with, they tend to be a bit less fussy about who is doing that work.
Things may seem bleak right now, for trans* people and other marked minorities, but appearances can be deceiving. All the ugly out there is backlash to the fact that we are, in fact, winning the culture war. The proper response to this backlash, in my mind, is to push even harder, rather than to retreat. The vehemence of the hate out there means one thing, loud and clear: we are winning. Now is not the time to give up, now is the time to make that final push.
For every legislative setback, we need to get more active.
For every word of cruelty, we need more radical kindness.
For every group gaining confidence in their hate and privilege, we need to build and strengthen communities of love, compassion and equality.
Just make sure our communities include everyone. That’s how we win.
The Women’s March on Washington gave us a great template for how to do this, with all their intentionality and intersectionality. Let’s carry those values to the local level. Make those values less of an ideal and more of a day-to-day normal. We can do this.